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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Easter - 4/20

          Out of curiosity I checked my files to find out what I had said about today’s gospel text in the past.  I do that sometimes to make sure my brilliant ideas aren’t the same ones I had three years ago or six years ago.  In the case of this text though, I found out that what I had said previously was…nothing;  I’ve ducked it.  Three years ago and six years ago I preached on the Stephen story from Acts which is a good story, worth preaching on.  Nine years ago I must have been on vacation because I couldn’t find anything.  Twelve years ago I was still hanging around at the seminary waiting for graduation so I could begin serving in the unknown wilderness of the Upper Peninsula.

          Anyway, after twelve years I guess it’s time to take it on.  “What’s the problem?” you ask.  Well, this chapter of John starts out quite innocently; in fact, if you’ve been to many funerals (which many of you have) you’ve heard this read as a funeral text.  “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”  It creates a beautiful picture, comforting, welcoming imagery for those mourning the loss of a loved one and I have used this part of the text for funerals; I have preached on it in that context.

          So that’s not the problem.  It’s not until we get down to verse six.  There Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”  That’s good too; lots to preach on concerning what it means, in fact the commentaries I looked at focus on that passage and its richness…but they tend to stop right there without including the last part of verse six, “No one comes to the Father except through me.”  That’s where I have a problem and that’s why I have avoided preaching on this in the past…but before you start gathering wood so you can burn me at the stake as a heretic, let me continue. 

          The reason I have a problem with that verse is not so much because of what it says but because of how it’s been interpreted and used as what we call a Bible bullet.  Bible bullets are verses which, when taken in isolation, often out of context, prove your point whatever your point happens to be. 

What Bible bullets also do is to effectively act to end conversation and I’m not sure that’s ever a good thing.  With this verse it effectively ends conversation with those of other faiths which, in my opinion, in a pluralistic world where people of other faiths aren’t just those in far off lands but people who might live pretty close to you, in my opinion it’s a conversation that needs to take place.

          For instance…I’ve taught the world religions course for Lay School since I’ve been back here and a couple of years ago at Synod Assembly, Lay School mini-classes were offered as workshops and I was asked to do one on our engagement with other faiths.  I was talking about the possibility that truth and salvation might be found in religions other than Christianity when one woman interrupted and said, “But Jesus says, ‘No one comes to the Father except through me.”  I gave what I’m sure was a very inadequate response, suggesting that there might be other ways to understand that verse considering its context and the whole context of John’s gospel and so forth, but I know she wasn’t having it.  She just kind of glared at me for the rest of that session, I’m sure thinking, “I’m glad he’s not my pastor.”

          For her though, that verse, that Bible bullet ends the conversation; it’s over.  Used that way you could also say that verse effectively silences millions of well meaning, observant Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and people of all kinds of other faiths or not much faith at all for that matter.  Silencing all those people is bad in and of itself, but what makes it worse is that silence can lead to violence.  As Walter Brueggemann has written, “The silenced are increasingly like a driven, helpless, desperate two year old who, having no say, will enact a tantrum.”  When people are silenced, when they have no voice or perceive that their voice is not being heard, they’ll do what they can do, they’ll get your attention, whatever it takes. 

          What I want to say here this morning is that I don’t think the Bible should ever be read that way.  It shouldn’t be used to end conversation; it shouldn’t be used to silence people, it shouldn’t be used to create divisions, not just because I say so but because it is contrary to the overarching message of the Bible read and interpreted as a whole and that is how we as Lutherans interpret and read it.  For Lutherans, firing Bible bullets is not a legitimate way to use scripture. 

          One of the issues that a text like this raises is how do we read the Bible; how are we to interpret and understand such texts?  In the case of this verse though, a better question might be to ask, “How are we to avoid misunderstanding some texts?”  A good starting point for avoiding misunderstanding is to avoid interpretations of absolute certainty which preclude other interpretations; in other words avoiding interpretations that lead to silence or which just lead to others making competing proposals of absolute certainty, which then leads to silence.

          The trouble with that is, for many well meaning people, like the woman I encountered in the workshop I did, probably like many of you, it’s upsetting when our absolute certainties are challenged.  Most of us crave certainty; we want to know for sure (remember Doubting Thomas a few weeks ago); we’re not comfortable living with ambiguity.  That’s what happened to me at seminary.  A lot of things I was pretty sure about were called into question, even prompting a t-shirt to be made with the seminary’s name and underneath it the phrase:  A place to get all your answers questioned.

          Statements of absolute certainty provide a degree of comfort (to the one who makes them) but consider what happens when we make claims that don’t do much more than say, “I’m a Christian and you’re not.”  Like I said, it leads to silence; the conversation is over.  As Brueggemann says, that might well lead to violence, but even if it doesn’t it leads to exclusion, it leads to division as significant groups of people who experience reality differently decide I don’t belong here.  They decide you don’t want anything to do with me, so I guess I don’t want anything to do with you.  It eliminates any possibility of dialogue that might lead to something new, new truth discovered together. 

          I don’t think Jesus came preaching a message of exclusion and silence.  I don’t think God became human in Jesus to reveal himself as a God of exclusion and silence and intolerance.  The entire Bible is something of a minority report, written by people proposing an alternative to the existing power structures that demanded conformity whether it was conformity to Egyptian ways or Babylonian ways or Roman ways.  The Bible was written by people envisioning another way.  Some of the biblical voices are pretty exclusive too, but the prophetic voices of inclusiveness rise up to challenge them inviting people to imagine a different reality.  With that in mind, to interpret this text as “my way or no way” doesn’t seem to fit with the spirit of the Bible or with the spirit of the God revealed in Jesus.

          “No one comes to the Father except through me” is difficult because on the surface, taken as one individual verse, it does sound pretty clear and absolute. I suspect however, that this passage has more to do with a call to follow the way of Jesus than it does with making absolute claims for Christianity versus other religions in a 21st century context.

          I think what it says is that if you want to know God, look at Jesus and the way he lived his life.  If you want to know God and become more like God look at the life of compassion and sacrifice, the life of welcome and inclusion that Jesus lived.  If you want to know God whatever faith you profess, look at the aspects of your faith that reflect the love of Jesus. 

This text goes on to say, “The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and in fact, will do greater works than these.”  That’s quite a statement but again, I think it says that as impressed as we may be by some of the miraculous works of Jesus, collectively we and people of other faiths are capable of even more; and as we act, God is revealed in us and in those we reach out to. 

In that sense, the way of Jesus is the way to the Father, for everyone.  As for who gets into heaven and why, I’ll let God sort that out.  In the meantime I will continue to proclaim the Jesus I know to be the way, the truth and the life.

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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